Alex Deans, Curious Travellers in SSL 42:2

Nigel Leask and I were pleased to be able to contribute an account of the Curious Travellers project to the symposium on ‘Spatial Humanities and Scottish Studies’ in the latest issue of Studies in Scottish Literature. As the journal editors Patrick Scott and Tony Jarells note in their preface, these symposia are a great way of bringing together short and focused pieces of (often ongoing) research under a particular theme, while reflecting a wide range of disciplines and approaches – made all the more valuable by the fact that SSL is an open access publication.

Reading the other pieces – thought-provokingly framed by Eric Gidal and Michael Gavin’s  introduction –  I was struck by both the similarities and divergences in the approaches which different projects are taking to the so-called “spatial turn” in the humanities. The use of technology is a common theme, and the digital methods being used by Curious Travellers are discussed in our article, including our plans for manuscript tours of Scotland and Wales and Pennant’s correspondence, and some background on our mapping collaboration with the National Library of Scotland – which has gone live since the issue went to press earlier this autumn.

Other projects in the symposium are investigating more analytic, Geo-spatial Information System or GIS-based approaches, which allow researchers to produce “deep” or (my preference) “thick maps” of the ways in which culture and place interact, or to model complex social, lexical, historical and environmental information within a common geographical frame. As in the case of Murray Pittock and Craig Lamont’s project, one advantage here seems to be that of making a great variety of histories and materials accessible to a broader audience, by opening them up to a medium that more and more of us – through our reliance on constantly available online mapping services via tablets and smartphones – are now used to engaging with on a daily basis. On the other hand, the contribution from the spatial humanities team at Lancaster University reflects on the difficulties of translating between page and landscape – even writing about place, it turns out, isn’t straight-forwardly amenable to spatial analysis.

Another common theme in this symposium seems to be the sense in which the spatial humanities – while novel in their current, primarily digital mode – owe their origins in part to a very eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sense of the ways in which culture and place are mutually formative, whether through language, economy, ecology, or any number of other factors. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in the travel writing of the period, but it’s also the case that no other genre seems to draw out the complexities involved in traversing, experiencing and representing place and space quite so vividly. The question of what it means to read literary works through a spatial lens is always mirrored by that of how past writers thought about the relationship between texts and places, and there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to either; of course, its precisely this complexity that makes it so exciting to be involved in this field as it continues to grow and develop.